On the Verge in Vermont

Media reform movement nears critical mass

by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney

Extra - Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)


Good evening, I'm Congressman Bernie Sanders and I want to welcome you to what I believe is the first congressional town meeting ever organized to address the issue of corporate control of the media."


Thus began the first of two public town meetings in late April 2002, where U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders (Vt.-Ind.) did what perhaps no member of Congress has done before-suggested that media can be a political issue in America. By focusing on corporate control of the media, the severe problems it creates for self-government and what can be done about it, the six-term congressmember opened a new chapter in the struggle for media reform.

And he did not do so alone. The town meetings drew overflow crowds of 200 in Montpelier on April 27 and 400 the next day in Burlington. The crowds ran the gamut from students to seniors, from veteran media activists to the local television station manager to folks who said they were hearing about some of these issues for the first time.

Sanders launched each event with a 20-minute introduction that broke the political silence about the bias that warps American media and politics. Noting that the 2000 presidential race was a virtual tie and that both houses of Congress are split almost evenly along partisan lines, Sanders asked: "Do you think that if you came from Mars and tuned into American media you would see this country as a nation that is closely divided politically? No, of course not. Visitors from Mars would see this country-from what appears in the media- as an extreme right-wing conservative nation. "

Interested, energized citizens

As the congressman's invited guests at these town meetings, we followed up his remarks by detailing the rabidly pro-corporate bias in the news media, the ways this bias undermines movements for economic and social justice, and the closing of lines of information and insight that are necessary for informed self-governance. We stressed how corporate media have become part of a corrupt "best-government-money-can-buy" system, in particular through their dreadful coverage of political campaigns.

What we found were crowds of citizens who were not merely interested but energized by the prospect of making media an issue. When we explained that the current corporate media system is not the "natural" result of the market, but is the result of explicit government policies, folks were pulling out notepads and taking notes. When we argued that these policies have been made in the public's name but without the public's informed consent, people in the crowd shouted, "That's right." When Bob declared that "the sheer corruption of media policy-making in Washington makes the Enron scandal look like a Sunday school bingo game by comparison," the crowd in Montpelier broke into loud applause.

We have been giving speeches on these issues for years now. And we have always argued that media reform must become a major political issue in America. But in Vermont, for the first time, we were struck by the fact that many years of effort by groups such as FAIR and our many allies in media-reform movements across the country are beginning to make the prospect a reality.

It wasn't anything we said. It was what the people of Vermont were saying. At both the Montpelier and Burlington town meetings, the audience comment periods lasted well over an hour. The questions and comments ranged from broad, of-the-moment issues-especially coverage of the 'War on Terrorism" and the 2000 Florida election debacle-to precise inquiries about the status of microradio initiatives.

Sanders, who conducts regular town meetings on crucial issues in Vermont, was exultant about the turnout and the energy. "This far exceeded anyone's expectations," he declared the second night in Burlington. "I think this shows that the movement for democratic media reform strikes a chord among the citizenry. It is going to be a longterm process but, after these last two days, I really think we can win it." A Sanders aide said the event in Burlington drew the largest crowd since Gloria Steinem-a decidedly more prominent and engaging figure than your co-authors-appeared at one of the congressman's town meetings some years ago.

The blossoming of media activism

The Vermont town meetings are a milestone for the burgeoning U.S. media reform movement. As recently as the late 1980s, there was virtually no activity around structurally reforming the media system, and little sense that change was even remotely possible. During the 1990s, activists began to recognize the need to do more than just critique increasingly monopolized and monotonous media. Local groups formed across the nation to monitor the local news media, keep commercialism out of schools and banish liquor billboards from working-class and minority neighborhoods.

In the past several years, media activism has blossomed at both the local and national levels. Organizations like People for Better Television and the Cultural Environment Movement were established to preserve viable nonprofit and noncommercial media. The Low Power FM movement organized to force the government to license hundreds of new noncommercial and nonprofit community radio stations. The Indymedia movement, using the Internet to launch a "people's journalism," has spread like kudzu since the Seattle WTO protests in 1999.

Recent political developments have only poured gasoline on the media reform fire. On the one hand, the press coverage of the War on Terrorism has been so lacking in credibility and content that citizens across the U.S. have turned to foreign media for information, while dismissing their own television, radio and print media as virtually indistinguishable from that of the authoritarian regimes George W. Bush so loudly condemns. On the heels of the appalling coverage of the 2000 presidential election-in which the news media managed to miss the story that Gore actually won-the failure of U.S. media to cover terrorism, a war, assaults on basic civil liberties and the Enron scandal with even a modicum of seriousness or balance has caused an evergrowing number of Americans to question the corporate media structures that produce such anti-democratic fare.

The mounting skepticism and the rising awareness of the need for a grassroots-based, nationally focused media reform movement comes none too soon. With strong support from broadcast lobbies and big media companies, the Bush administration is building momentum-at the Federal Communications Commission and in the court system-to relax or eliminate the important remaining ownership restrictions on media conglomerates. If these changes are enacted-with barely a shred of news media coverage-the United States will witness a tidal wave of media consolidation. What has happened to radio since its deregulation in l996 - content-free homogenization in combination with hypercommercialism-will serve as a model for all media. In March, concerns about this "deregulation"-which is really regulation of the rest of us to serve the interests of the largest media firms- spawned the first-ever public demonstration outside the FCC headquarters in Washington.

It was a small demonstration, but a big indication that what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said about civil rights could also prove to be true about media reform: "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

For years the conventional wisdom was that media reform-like campaign finance reform-was too abstract an issue to get people off their duffs and into action. Over the years, we have argued that media reform has always had more potential as an issue. Because while the corruption of our politics by big money interests ultimately affects all our lives, people experience media every day, for hour after hour, to an extent that permeates almost every aspect of their lives. And people complain about media, loudly and vigorously, virtually every day. The challenge has always been to turn those complaints into action.

Needed: specific proposals

As the Vermont town meetings revealed, when people have an opportunity to address media as a political issue, they respond with passion and intelligence. Moreover, they quickly recognize that this is an issue that cuts across the political spectrum. It is probably safe to say that most of the people who came to the town meetings in April were progressives, but we know from our conversations following the meetings that there were plenty of moderates and conservatives in the crowds. That should come as

no surprise. No more than leftists do sincere conservatives want their children's brains marinated in advertising; they do not want political campaigns to be centered entirely around expensive, inaccurate and insulting political advertising, and they do not want America's democratic discourse reduced to poll-tested soundbites and arguments about which television anchor is wearing the biggest flag pin.

In Vermont, we found broad agreement on what a genuine media-reform movement needs: several explicit proposals to organize around. People want to get serious about these issues, but they are properly wary about pouring their energies into projects that lack an endgame strategy for success. Sanders has already drafted legislation to freeze postal rates for small-circulation and nonprofit publications, and is working on several other fronts. Numerous other members of Congress-including Sen. Paul Wellstone (D.-Minn.), Sen. Fritz Hollings (D.-S.C.), Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D.-III.) and Rep. John Conyers (D.-Mich.)-have begun working on media matters. All signs indicate a range of legislation will emerge in the next few years. Then the hard work of organizing public support can commence in earnest.

No one doubts that the organizing will be hard. But the Vermont town meetings provided a powerful indication that the masses may be ready for the movement. Indeed, when Sanders recognized the last questioner late that Sunday night, the man who rose did not have a question at all. Instead, he turned to the crowd and asked whether folks wanted to get together a few days later to start building the movement in Montpelier. As the hands flew up, we thought to ourselves: As Montpelier goes, so goes the nation.


John Nichols and Robert ~ McChesney are the co-authors of Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media, to be published this fall by Seven Stories Press.

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